We are all familiar with the episode when Elijah the prophet called all the prophets of Baal (450 men) to Mt. Carmel. This was during the reign of the evil king Ahab and his wicked wife Jezebel. Here is the narrative, starting from 1 Kings 18:20:
20 So Ahab sent to all the people of Israel and gathered the prophets together at Mount Carmel. 21 And Elijah came near to all the people and said, “How long will you go limping between two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.” And the people did not answer him a word. 22 Then Elijah said to the people, “I, even I only, am left a prophet of the Lord, but Baal’s prophets are 450 men. 23 Let two bulls be given to us, and let them choose one bull for themselves and cut it in pieces and lay it on the wood, but put no fire to it. And I will prepare the other bull and lay it on the wood and put no fire to it. 24 And you call upon the name of your god, and I will call upon the name of the Lord, and the God who answers by fire, he is God.” And all the people answered, “It is well spoken.” 25 Then Elijah said to the prophets of Baal, “Choose for yourselves one bull and prepare it first, for you are many, and call upon the name of your god, but put no fire to it.” 26 And they took the bull that was given them, and they prepared it and called upon the name of Baal from morning until noon, saying, “O Baal, answer us!” But there was no voice, and no one answered. And they limped around the altar that they had made. 27 And at noon Elijah mocked them, saying, “Cry aloud, for he is a god. Either he is musing, or he is relieving himself, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.” 28 And they cried aloud and cut themselves after their custom with swords and lances, until the blood gushed out upon them. 29 And as midday passed, they raved on until the time of the offering of the oblation, but there was no voice. No one answered; no one paid attention.
30 Then Elijah said to all the people, “Come near to me.” And all the people came near to him. And he repaired the altar of the Lord that had been thrown down. 31 Elijah took twelve stones, according to the number of the tribes of the sons of Jacob, to whom the word of the Lord came, saying, “Israel shall be your name,” 32 and with the stones he built an altar in the name of the Lord. And he made a trench about the altar, as great as would contain two seahs of seed. 33 And he put the wood in order and cut the bull in pieces and laid it on the wood. And he said, “Fill four jars with water and pour it on the burnt offering and on the wood.” 34 And he said, “Do it a second time.” And they did it a second time. And he said, “Do it a third time.” And they did it a third time. 35 And the water ran around the altar and filled the trench also with water.
36 And at the time of the offering of the oblation, Elijah the prophet came near and said, “O Lord, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known this day that you are God in Israel, and that I am your servant, and that I have done all these things at your word. 37 Answer me, O Lord, answer me, that this people may know that you, O Lord, are God, and that you have turned their hearts back.” 38 Then the fire of the Lord fell and consumed the burnt offering and the wood and the stones and the dust, and licked up the water that was in the trench. 39 And when all the people saw it, they fell on their faces and said, “The Lord, he is God; the Lord, he is God.” 40 And Elijah said to them, “Seize the prophets of Baal; let not one of them escape.” And they seized them. And Elijah brought them down to the brook Kishon and slaughtered them there.
Here are some interesting observations that you might not have previously noticed:
- When Elijah asked the people of Israel (who should have been worshipping the living God) “how long will you go limping between two different opinions?” (v. 21), the people were silent. They did not answer him a word (v. 21). Their response or non-response is so typically modern. The reason why they were “wavering” (the preferred translation for most translations) between two opinions was because they did not want to commit to either side. They were afraid of losing out so they wanted to see who would be victorious or more real at the moment before making a commitment. They represent the quintessential “modern” consumer. “I want to keep my options open so I am not ready to make a decision either way.” So they continue to waver or “limp”-living with uncertainty and the absence of any conviction because they are opportunists.
- Now, the Israelites speak, but only after Elijah outlines clearly what the plans for the immediate future will be. Elijah said, “Let two bulls be given to us, and let them choose one bull for themselves and cut it in pieces and lay it on the wood, but put no fire to it. And I will prepare the other bull and lay it on the wood and put no fire to it. 24 And you call upon the name of your god, and I will call upon the name of the Lord, and the God who answers by fire, he is God.” And all the people answered, “It is well spoken.” (vv. 23-24). They make a “commitment” after they pragmatically consider the options. It sounded reasonable to them because now they can see which “god” will be more viable and “useful” rather than simply beautiful.
- So the prophets of Baal set up an altar and they started to call upon their god to bring the fire, but there was no voice (v. 26). No one answered and no one paid attention (v. 29). Their god was impotent, possibly musing or relieving himself, or on a journey or perhaps sleeping (v. 27). So since he is so impotent and unable to do anything or say anything, the prophets have to work themselves up into a frenzy by crying out and cutting themselves.
- Of course, we know how the rest of the story goes…Elijah sets up the altar just like the prophets of Baal, and then asks others to pour water (a lot of water) over the altar and sacrifice and then cries out to God to answer him. “Then the fire of the Lord fell and consumed the burnt offering…and licked up the water that was in the trench.” (v. 38). “And when all the people saw it, they fell on their faces and said, “The Lord, he is God; the Lord, he is God.” (v. 39).
Here are some implications:
- God cannot be merely “useful” to us, although he is so able to help and deliver us, but he needs to be beautiful. Adore him for this today.
- God is the one who always brings the fire. We are simply asked to set up the altar. The prophets of Baal were all about works righteousness. They thought they were the ones to bring the fire, so they cut themselves and worked themselves up in a spiritual frenzy. How burdensome it is to rely on our own performance to secure our future success. God directs our path so trust him today.
- When we waver in our minds and our hearts about our commitment to God, rather than making him our ultimate priority, then this sort of syncretistic compromising (this is also called, “keeping my options open” approach just in case God doesn’t pull through) will lead to a life that is limp. The verb that is used in v. 21 and is the same verb used in v. 26. “How long will you go limping between two different opinions?” “And they limped (“danced” is the common translation for this Hebrew verb) around the altar that they had made.” This verb means, “unfit or being lame.” We will literally be “lame” people limping around aimlessly with no purpose. Be focused and look to the living God who responds with no hesitation. When God shows up and brings the fire, or literally when the “fire fell” then it evokes people to “fall on their faces” as their hearts respond with absolute certainty and no limping hesitation.
- Lastly, the living God of the fire comes with supernatural majesty but he also comes with “a low whisper” (19.12). He was not in the wind, earthquake, nor fire, but in a low whisper. “And behold, there came a voice (the same word as the “low whisper” [qol in the Hebrew].” (19.13). All the other “voices” (18.26, 29; qol is also used in these two verses as well) are silent but God is the WORD who speaks through his written word (the scriptures) and in his Son, the Word who was with God and who is God (John 1.1). Revel in this communicating God who is the WORD. He speaks into your life so pray your life to God.
“Living God, thank you that my prayers do not depend on spiritual frenzy or cracking heaven’s code. I need not rouse you or speak loud enough or long enough to get your attention. Nevertheless, keep me passionate in prayer, knowing you listen, giving your grace and Holy Spirit to those who pray continually and groan inwardly. Amen” (Seeking God’s Face, p. 721; cf. HC 116)